‘Burnout’ common at work: Survey

By Sarah Dobson
|www.cos-mag.com

Whether it’s sitting with their head in their hands or another day of not showing up for work, burnout can be a problem for many employees. And when 40 per cent of workers say they’re experiencing just that — according to a recent survey by Staples — it should be cause for concern.

“It’s quite indicative that burnout is a larger problem than we probably would like to acknowledge in the Canadian workplace,” said Scott D’Cunha, vice-president of marketing, e-commerce and communications at Staples Advantage Canada in Toronto, citing a challenging economy where organizations have been told to buckle down, leading to increased workloads. “Organizationally, as managers are placed under more pressure, associates and employees start to feel some of that pressure themselves,” he said.

Sixty-seven per cent of the respondents said workload is the biggest reason for feeling burnt out at work, followed by time pressures (55 per cent) and manager pressure (39 per cent), found the survey of 1,995 employees and 1,059 decision-makers in the United States, and 1,190 employees and 642 decision-makers in Canada.

These factors are always in the mix when we’re talking about burnout, said Michael Leiter, a professor of organizational psychology at Deakin University in Melbourne, Aus.

“Contemporary workplaces intensify these pressures because the workday has fewer boundaries — people take their work home with them often — and customers expect prompt responses day or night. I think the bigger issue is that these pressures interfere with employees’ capacity to recover their energies through time off.”

One-quarter of the respondents said they “always” work more than 40 hours per week, while 21 per cent said “usually” and 24 per cent said “sometimes,” found Staples. That’s potentially 70 per cent of workers putting in longer hours.

Forty-five per cent said they do so to complete work they couldn’t get through during the day, while 19 per cent said it’s to get ahead of the following day.

However, the definition of “burnout” can vary.

“Burnout scales measure experiences that everyone has some of the time,” said Leiter. “For example, everyone starts a day at work feeling tired; burnout becomes an issue when people start nearly every day at work feeling (tired). So, the fact that a lot of people report experiences that map onto burnout symptoms does not mean that 40 per cent are experiencing burnout. I use a more strict definition of burnout and find that it’s usually five to seven per cent of working people who are struggling with burnout.”

In many ways, the word is overutilized, said Ashley Spetch, director of organizational wellness at Homewood Health in Vancouver.

“The true clinical definition of burnout is totally exhausted and depersonalized and disconnected, and I don’t think that many people in the workplace really are truly that burnt out. I think high job stress, absolutely, and overwhelmed, absolutely.”

Impact significant

While maybe not truly “burnout,” the impact is still real — 47 per cent of respondents said burnout is motivating them to look for another job while 15 per cent have taken a stress-related leave of absence.

Burnout has negative consequences for employees’ physical and mental well-being, said Leiter, citing hypertension, sleep disturbance, anxiety and depression as examples.

“It also has huge consequences for one’s career as people may need to interrupt their careers, find a different job or even change professions to fully recover. Once people have taken a leave after experiencing serious burnout in a job, they rarely return to that job,” he said.

 If employees are burnt out, it’s very similar to people being disengaged and part of that is the emotional exhaustion piece, which results in them checking out at the workplace, said Spetch.

“Employees who are burnt out often become cynical and they become very disconnected from the work that they do and so… they’re less committed, they’re less engaged in what they’re doing and they’re likely to withdraw in some way. So that could be absenteeism, it could be presenteeism… so being at work but not being productively engaged in what you’re doing. And certainly turnover, looking for more organizations that have more flexibility, more control.”

However, job stress at a certain level is healthy and productive, she said.

“There’s an optimal level of stress. If you have no stress, you can be disengaged and not interested, so there is an optimal level where people tend to thrive and that may be different for some individuals. But when the stress gets too high and you don’t have the resources, whether it’s from your organization or your own personal coping skills to manage that, that can activate underlying mental health conditions — that can lead to depression or anxiety that can be unmanageable to the extent of needing to go on some kind of mental health leave.”

Workplace supports include flexibility, control

However, there are options that can help. Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of employees surveyed by Staples said a more flexible schedule could help with the stress, while 59 per cent cited a decreased workload and 52 per cent were in favour of leaders encouraging breaks.

Flexibility in work patterns can make for a powerful approach, said Leiter.

“People are more engaged when they feel some personal initiative in their work and do things the way that makes sense,” he said. “Flexibility is much more important than workload. Also, people last a lot longer doing work they value than they do performing work they think is just drudgery or empty paperwork.”

Workplace health initiatives that assure good ergonomics, movement and activities are also important, said Leiter, along with recognizing the importance of recovery and giving employees more latitude after they’ve exerted themselves on a major initiative.

“(It’s about) making a fulfilling workplace that allows people to do work they care about with opportunities to take initiatives and to be recognized for their contributions.”

Stress in and of itself can be managed, said Spetch, and there are a lot of things employers can do to stop job stress from leading to burnout.

 “One of them is helping employees have control over what they’re doing… and increasing flexibility, so whether that flexibility is in terms of their actual job-related tasks or whether that’s flexibility in terms of being able to telecommute or flex your time. But having employees have more control certainly is a big factor.”

A huge factor for burnout is when people are in a high-demand, low-control environment, so part of the solution is workload management but it’s also looking at things like technology to help improve efficiency, she said.

“How can you look at having employees be a part of the process in designing how their work gets done? How do you give managers the right tools to be able to support employees... in terms of their psychological health in the workplace?”

And encouraging employees to take breaks helps them understand the law of diminishing returns at work, said Spetch, “so if you don’t take a break, then you become less and less productive if you don’t have a chance to rejuvenate and be well.”

Leading by example

It’s also about leading by example, which means leaders should not be expecting employees to answer emails after hours and should be demonstrating work-life balance, she said.

“Leading by example is a huge, important way to show support.”

Finding that balance point between pushing people to do more and not pushing them too far is the refined art of managing, said Leiter.

“It is necessary to have a good and accurate awareness of the job and of the range of individual capabilities in one’s team for a manager to find the right balance. It also goes to employees’ sense of justice: What is a fair and unfair expectation is a dynamic issue. Good management requires careful listening and sensitivity to employees’ understanding of expectations.” 

Sarah Dobson is the editor of Canadian HR Reporter, a sister publication of COS. 

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 17 issue of CHRR. 



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